Updated: Dec 15, 2019
In 2010, New York City launched a new restaurant grading program which assigned restaurants a letter grade of A, B, or C depending on the number of health violations recorded in the establishment’s most recent inspection. The end product of these inspections are the lamented A, B, C card signs you've likely seen posted on the windows of every restaurant. What do these grades really mean?
To explain, restaurants with a score of 0 to 13 points receive an A grade, those with 14 to 27 points receive a B grade, and those with 28 or more receive a C. Those who earn 28 points or more are inspected once a month until the score drops below 28, or the restaurant is closed down by the Department of Health.
According to NYC’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, restaurants go through two inspections before they are graded. In the initial inspection, inspectors score restaurants but do not assign them a grade. If restaurants earn a score below 14, inspectors are not required to conduct a re-inspection and those restaurants may not receive a grade. If restaurants earn a score within the B or C range, inspectors are required to conduct an unannounced re-inspection within a month of the initial inspection to formally assign a grade. Along with a B or C grade card, restaurants are also provided with a “grade pending” card. B and C grade restaurants have the autonomy to post whichever card they see fit before they have an opportunity to be heard at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings Health Tribunal.
Generally speaking, a restaurant’s final score out of ten is determined by the tally of points it accumulates during the inspection. The final score is a reflection of how well the restaurant follows the City and State food safety requirements regarding food handling, food temperature, personal hygiene, facility and equipment maintenance, and vermin control. Each violation contributes a certain number of points to the overall inspection score which determines the restaurant’s final score. Of course, the lower the score, the better. With a score of 7 out of 10, which can be a result of the failure to store food at the right temperature, restaurants are considered a public health hazard. This can lead the restaurant to be closed until the problem is fixed. With a score of 5 out of 10, which can be the result of restaurants serving raw foods without proper treatment prior to consumption, restaurants are in a critical violation state. This means the problem needs to be addressed prior to the next inspection. With a score of 2 out of 10 points, which can the result of a lack of proper utensil sanitation, restaurants are in a general violation state. This means that there are no serious health violations and concerns.
What does all this information mean to restaurant customers?
First, restaurants with an A grade are not potential public health hazards and generally safe to dine at. In 2019, the Department of Health stated that more than 90% of the restaurants in New York City are displaying “A” grades. This is a good sign for a city filled with households who spent an average of 43.6% (Bureau of Labor Statistics) on food away from home. In Manhattan alone, 8880 restaurants hold an “A” grade. This includes popular places such as SMOR, Whitman’s, and Joe’s Pizza.
Restaurants with a “B” grade or “grade pending” sign have critical violations that could potentially cause cases of foodborne illness. These restaurants should be eaten at with caution. There are 451 restaurants that hold a grade of “B” in Manhattan. Some examples of these establishments are Dun Huang, Joe & the Juice, Pho Saigon, and Raku. My recommendation for customers who eat at these restaurants is to search them up on the Department’s restaurant inspection result website and read violations that the restaurants have committed to determine whether they are safe to eat at or not. Many restaurant owners have complained that inspectors are biased and inconsistent when docking points and charging violations. This is a valid issue within the restaurant inspection system as individual inspectors have their own perspective and approach to inspection. While one inspector may dock points because a bartender has a rag in their back pocket, another inspector may dock points for unwrapped drinking straws. However, in both cases, the inspection guidelines are ambiguous in claiming what the sanitary procedure is. Who is to determine whether the cloth that the bartender is using is for cleaning food and non-food surfaces? Additionally, who is to say that the drinking straws are not being dispensed from a sanitary devices? In fact, how is a sanitary device determined? These are the unanswered aspects of the health code.
Restaurants with a C grade have potential public health hazard practices and really need to be closed down. Customers should reconsider their decision to visit these restaurants because these places potentially have rats and roaches present and living in the food and non-food areas. Also, they may have high risks of food contamination, leading to foodborne illnesses that can cause consumers to become hospitalised from food poisoning. Based on the Department’s website, there are 145 restaurants holding a C grade. These include Caffe Bene, Cold Stone Creamery, Gong Cha, and The Bean.
If you look on yelp and the reviews for a restaurant are below 3.5, look at the pictures and consider if it is really a place you want to eat at. Restaurant grades of A and B are generally safe, however, there is always be cautious. In the history of inspections, many establishments have bribed or offered money as a mediator against bad initial inspection grades (Baird, ”Inside”) . On the other hand, health violation fines also do exist. In these cases, establishments pay the fine to fight the violations they have.
It is important to recognise that the grading system is still effective in keeping restaurants accountable and ensuring a health standard as 88% of New Yorkers consider the letter grade when dining out or calling delivery. Personally, I frequent restaurants, cafes, and other food establishments with the letter grade in mind, but it isn't always the determining factor. A place such as Jing Fong, to me, is a reflection of the restaurants that are most representative of those I grew up eating at. It's a little hectic, a little too loud, and the sanitation level is uncertain at best, but the food is delicious, the atmosphere familiar, and the experience satisfying.